Review of Esperanza Rising.
Pam Munoz Ryan, in her novel, Esperanza Rising, tells a great story, uses wonderful symbolic elements to embody it, and illuminates some often ignored, uncomfortable aspects of American history. Its heroine, Esperanza Ortega, lives until she is thirteen as the adored only child of a wealthy ranch owner and his regal, gentle wife, Ramona. Esperanza’s Papa is killed by bandits the day before her thirteenth birthday, and though the ranch house and profits from the grape fields are left to her and her mother, the land is left to her father’s stepbrothers. In an effort to gain control of all the inheritance and to enhance his political career, one of the stepbrothers insists on marrying the new widow. When she turns him down, he burns down the house and grape arbors. Esperanza and her mother must flee surreptitiously to the United States with their former housekeeper, Hortensia, and her husband, Alfonso, also a former employee, and their sixteen-year old son, Miguel, who was raised with Esperanza. Forced to leave the maternal grandmother, Abuelita, behind because of a broken ankle sustained escaping the fire, they seek a way for her to follow when she is healed. In the states they will all work in the fields and packing sheds of depression era Southern California. This riches to rags story forms the core of the plot, and Esperanza’s growth into social awareness the core of the internal movement of the story.
Ryan has woven a beautiful tapestry of metaphor and symbol to make her story imaginatively alive. The “rising” in the title refers to the phoenix legend of the mythical bird that arises out of its own ashes. Abuelita uses this myth to encourage her daughter and granddaughter to take heart as they move away from their home to start a new, less privileged life in California. At the end of the novel, this rising becomes a vision Esperanza has of rising above the new homeland and taking in all its new challenges and possibilities. Also from Abuelita is the metaphor of a crocheted blanket’s zigzag pattern as the mountains and valleys of life. She starts the blanket on the tragic night they were waiting to get word of Papa and sends it ahead to the U.S. for her granddaughter to finish. In fact, blankets and shawls are used throughout the novel as symbols of comfort, nurture, and protection. Papa’s roses tie the two homes and lifestyles together. He had grown them and nurtured them on their ranch (Rancho de las Rosas). Miguel and Alfonso dig some of them that seemed to have a viable root system after the fire and secretly carry them all the way to California, moistening them at every train stop. When they arrive in the company camp, they plant them. Esperanza and her mother finally realize what Miguel and Alfonso had been doing. In their first spring in the San Joaquin Valley, the roses bloom as Mama, who had been deathly ill, returns to health, Abuelita joins them, and Esperanza realizes there is hope in the new land.
Along with this uplifting story of personal growth through facing hardship, the reader is introduced to some important aspects of American social and economic history. The farm camps to which Esperanza, her mother, and former servants have come are the site of early labor organizing efforts among the farm workers. Ryan manages to tell this story without taking sides. Marta, a young woman activist, born and raised in the United States with Mexican heritage, at first ridicules Esperanza for being a rich child. Though Esperanza’s camp votes not to join the strike, Esperanza does help Marta escape detection when La Migra (immigration officials) break up a demonstration by putting demonstrators on buses back to Mexico. At this time Esperanza learns that many of the “repatriated” people have never even been to Mexico and are born American citizens. Ryan tells us in the “Author’s Note” that 450,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of Mexican and Mexican Americans who were sent to Mexico between 1929 and 1935. By having her heroine sympathetic although not active in the organizing, Ryan introduces the topic without advocating any particular action. Some readers may find this timid, but it will make it possible to use the book in a wider variety of school settings.
Besides the attempts at organizing and the subsequent repatriation of farm laborers, readers see from a personal perspective the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (the bandits who kill Esperanza’s father are suspected of being former revolutionaries who refuse to quit), the segregation of farm workers into different (and by no means identical) camps according to ethnic background, and the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees who begin to flood the California labor pool at this time. And overall, there is the tension between the former servant class Mexicans and their dreams of bettering themselves in the United States and the reality they encounter here. Though Miguel is a gifted mechanic, the only jobs he has been offered on the railroad are laying track or digging ditches. Yet he retains his hope that if he works hard, eventually his worth will be recognized.
Pam Munoz Ryan tells us in her “Author’s Note” that the novel closely parallels the story of her own family history and that those of her generation are successful people with many professions. This part of American civil rights history is not well known outside the Southwest and California. The novel could be taught as a well-written story, richly layered with significant imagery, and a tale of great personal growth. But it could also be used as an introduction to the social and economic history of the Depression and its effects on Western farm workers.
Review by Mary Ruth Donnelly
Return to Main Page